As they reshape their leadership team, House Republicans are likely to trade a hard-charging Virginia lawyer with deep political ties to Wall Street for a gregarious former deli owner from California with a fixation on Silicon Valley.
The expected elevation of Rep. Kevin McCarthy to replace Rep. Eric Cantor as majority leader in an election Thursday sets up a new dynamic for a caucus that has been ravaged by infighting but is in a strong position to maintain and even expand its grip on power in this fall’s midterm elections. The McCarthy-Cantor swap is unlikely to represent any ideological shift — the duo have been close friends and political allies for eight years — but it could signal a stylistic change that offers opportunities and pitfalls for House Republicans.
Cantor had emerged as a tough force with a vast fundraising network, which at times created friction with House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). As the No. 3 member of the team, McCarthy has been the likable majority whip who spent an inordinate amount of time getting to know almost every Republican lawmaker.
This new framework will be tested fairly quickly in the months ahead, first on some domestic agency spending bills and then on efforts to reauthorize highway funding programs and the Export-Import Bank. McCarthy’s supporters say that his 31 / 2 years as whip have given him a strong foundation with lawmakers and should ease his ascension.
“There doesn’t have to be a whole lot of on-the-job training,” said former congressman Bill Thomas, who hired a young McCarthy almost 30 years ago to work in his district office in Bakersfield, Calif., and has served as a mentor ever since.
The first order of business is finishing the race to succeed Cantor, whose loss in a Virginia primary last Tuesday set off the surprising bid to fill his spot.
Rep. Raúl Labrador (Idaho), a second-term lawmaker from the most conservative flank of the House Republican Conference, is mounting a long-shot challenge. Some of McCarthy’s backers welcome Labrador’s bid because they believe it will finally demonstrate just how much — or little — support the most conservative wing has.
By late Thursday, some McCarthy supporters were openly baiting the far right to at least put up a challenger because they thought they already had well in excess of a majority to win.
“The more exotic members around here once again failed to have a candidate. They failed to show up. They don’t debate,” Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.) told reporters before Labrador’s announcement.
The belief now is that if McCarthy can put up an overwhelming victory — approaching 200 votes or more out of 233 Republicans — it will give him and Boehner a bigger mandate to push their vision without as much fear of retribution from the right flank. That would allow him to ease into the job by the end of July, when Cantor steps down and when Congress begins its five-week summer break.
Over the past 20 years, Republicans have placed the majority-leader job in the hands of wildly different personality types, such as an economics professor (Richard K. Armey of Texas), an aggressive social conservative (Tom DeLay of Texas), a laid-back Midwestern Catholic (Boehner) and an ambitious lawyer trying to become the first Jewish speaker (Cantor).
Traditionally, the job requirement is more policy-focused, working with the committee chairmen to chart longer-term strategy on legislation and setting the right time to bring bills up for a vote. McCarthy comes at the job with less of a policy background than his recent GOP predecessors had, but he has a sharper political focus than most of the other leaders, having played a lead recruiting role for the successful 2010 elections.
But McCarthy — from California’s farm-focused Central Valley — will have to work on fundraising, something Cantor mastered over the years. Since the start of 2013, Cantor has raised more than $1.2 million from donors in the securities and financial services industry for his various political committees, according to the Center for Responsive Politics; McCarthy has raised just $355,000 from that key donor community.
Long enamored of social media and apps, McCarthy helped create a Web site in early 2010 that allowed voters to submit legislative ideas and then used some of that input to lead the drafting of the “Pledge to America,” the House GOP’s campaign agenda.
The whip job, which he won in a unanimous vote, shifted him away from that brief policy focus. He became a big-brother type to the class of 2010, using his office as a meet-up spot and shopping with members at the Pentagon City mall.
These bonds paid off in terms of getting honest feedback on what bills the newcomers could support, and they returned the favor in quickly lining up behind him for the leader’s race. “He’s a guy who can bring people together,” said Rep. Sean P. Duffy (R-Wis.).
Some worry that McCarthy’s all-inclusive personality will come back to haunt him in his new role, which is broader and more strategic. He will not have the same amount of time to tend to every need of rank-and-file Republicans, according to former advisers to past majority leaders.
McCarthy’s penchant for talking to everyone — lawmakers, lobbyists, campaign aides and the news media — could leave him unfocused in a job that requires laser precision, some Republicans say.
Defenders suggest that McCarthy may be able to blend the granular political knowledge he has of members and their districts in a way similar to the role Rahm Emanuel played for House Democrats when he was on their leadership team, understanding how each bill could affect various members back home.
“Kevin is more fit, personality-wise, to be majority leader,” said Rep. Thomas J.Rooney (R-Fla.).
Others wonder whether he will have the backbone needed to mete out discipline — his sunny personality is a stark contrast to DeLay’s in his days as the strong-arming whip.
Close friends warn against this perception, saying that his days working for Thomas taught him how to blend politics and policy to bend people to his will. Thomas famously did this with a hard-edged persona, while McCarthy has adopted a sense of charm in his demands for team play and unity.
“Thomas, with a smile,” Nunes predicted of McCarthy’s approach.
One element that will be different is the lack of conflict between the top two leaders, something that governed the Boehner-Cantor relationship for several years. Policy disputes quickly turned into whispers that Cantor was considering a challenge to unseat Boehner.
The speaker and McCarthy have never had that rivalry, and the two have traveled together, even attending a tea party rally in Bakersfield in 2009 just to see the burgeoning movement up close.
The Boehner-Cantor-McCarthy trio has been together for 31 / 2 years, struggling to get through two grand fiscal showdowns with President Obama and then the partial government shutdown in October.
“That whole leadership team hadn’t been steeped in a lot of experience,” Thomas said, “but they learned on the job.”